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Focus on Issues: Jewish Ethicists Voice Concerns over Gender-selection Technology

October 15, 1998
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The recent announcement that selecting a baby’s gender is now feasible has naturally prompted two questions for many Jews: Is sex selection Jewishly acceptable? And if it is, what does that say about God’s role in human creation?

Jewish ethicists and rabbis expressed concern after a Virginia company claimed to perfect a method for sorting sperm that allows couples to select the sex of their child.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a widely respected Orthodox expert in bioethics and Judaism, said the motivation for intervening in human creation is what makes it Jewishly acceptable or not.

Sorting sperm to try to avert a possible disease in the fetus would be acceptable, but not simply to choose the child’s gender, said Tendler, the chairman of the biology department at Yeshiva University in New York.

Dawn Robinson Rose, the director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, agreed.

“God is in the process when intervention leads to the prevention of disease, such as Tay-Sachs,” she said in an interview.

“But this sort of intervention could be an area which leads to extreme abuse, given the preference for males over females, which is a part of so many cultures and has been a part of the Jewish community,” she said.

The new technique that allows couples to successfully choose a baby’s gender was developed at the Genetics and IVF Institute in Virginia. Researchers were able to select sperm carrying either the X chromosome or Y chromosome based on the amount of DNA, or genetic material, that it carried.

The researchers said that Y chromosome-bearing sperm have nearly 3 percent less genetic material than X carrying sperm.

Men are solely responsible for determining the gender of the children they help to create: a single sperm carries either a X chromosome or a Y chromosome. If it is an X, the child will be a girl, while if it is a Y, then it will produce a boy.

Researchers using the new technique reported in the medical journal Human Reproduction a 65 percent success rate in filtering out Y chromosome bearing sperm and an 85 percent success rate in doing the same for X chromosome bearing sperm.

Thirteen out of fourteen couples who had requested a daughter had given birth to one using this technique, they wrote.

While sex-selection techniques are not new, none have been reported to have the success rate that this one does.

Earlier sperm-sorting techniques, which were first announced to be successful, were later found to injure many of the sperm and lead to damaged babies, Tendler said, and it remains to be seen if the same will be true for the new method.

The risk of introducing fetal abnormalities through mechanical and chemical manipulation during sperm sorting is “ethically unacceptable,” he said.

But “if the intent is to avoid conceiving a fetus with a sex-linked genetic disease, sperm sorting with the attending risk is preferable to aborting the affected fetus,” Tendler said.

Certain diseases, like Tay-Sachs, affect mostly Jewish males.

Tendler is concerned that parents not use the new technology simply because they prefer a girl over a boy, or vice versa, which, in most of the cases cited by the company announcing the breakthrough, seems to be the motivation.

But there may be special interest in this new technique among Orthodox Jews, said some of those interviewed.

Most Orthodox Jews take the commandment to be fruitful and multiply very seriously and consider it fulfilled only after they have at least one child of both genders.

“According to some halachic opinions, maybe most, if someone has eight males, he has not fulfilled his obligation to the mitzvah,” or commandment, said Tendler.

Using the new technique, some Orthodox couples might be able to ensure one of each gender and have only two children instead of letting the chromosomal dice roll as they may, and go on to have many more.

That potential is why Conservative Rabbi David Feldman does not like the idea of sex selection.

“If this capability became widespread it is possible to imagine that couples with three, four or five children still trying for one of the opposite gender would use it. And that motive for being procreative, which is Jewishly more desirable,” would disappear, said Feldman, the author of “Birth Control in Jewish Law: Marital Relations, Contraception and Abortion.”

Feldman recalled the life of Rabbi Abraham Bornstein, who lived in the early 1900s in Central Europe, and had 10 sons. Bornstein cried, saying that he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah, recalled Feldman. “Then he realized that even Moses, with two sons, didn’t either.”

In the end, Feldman said, “too much choice leads to disappointment. Choice is not always a blessing. If you take what God gives you it’s far healthier outlook about life generally.”

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